Companies pay for campaign against Worker’s Party through WhatsApp

bolsonaro_whatsappContracts worth US$ 3 million break the law on undeclared political donations

Patrícia Campos Mello

FOLHA DE SÃO PAULO

Companies have bought packages of mass dispersal of messages against the Worker’s Party (PT) using WhatsApp and are preparing a big operation in the week before the final round.

The practice is illegal, as it consists of campaign donation by companies, which is forbidden under the electoral legislation, and was undeclared.

The Folha newspaper found that each contract is worth up to US$ 3 million, and that among the companies buying are Havan. The contracts are for the dispersal of hundreds of millions of messages.

The companies supporting the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) bought a service called “mass dispersal”, using the user database of the candidate or databases sold by digital strategy agencies. This is also illegal, as the electoral legislation forbids buying the database from third parties, only allowing the use of lists of supporters of the candidate themselves (numbers given voluntarily).

When they use a third party database, these agencies offer segmentation by geographical region, and sometimes by income. The client is then sent delivery reports containing the date, time and content sent.

Among the agencies providing this type of services are Quickmobile, a Yacows, Croc Services and SMS Market.

Prices vary from R$ 0.08 to R$ 0.12 for dispersal of a message to the database of the candidate and from R$ 0.30 to R$ 0.40 when the database is supplied by the agency.

The user databases are often supplied illegally by credit companies or by staff from telephone companies.

Companies investigated by the report said they were unable to accept requests before 28th October, the date of the final round of the election, saying their services were booked for huge dispersal through WhatsApp in the week before bought by private companies.

Questioned whether he used mass dispersal, Luciano Hang, owner of Havan, said he “did not know what it was”, and that “We have no need. I did a ‘live’ broadcast here now. It was not boosted and already achieved 1.3 million people. What is the need to boost? Let’s say I have 2,000 friends. I send it to my friends and it goes viral.”

Asked for comment, the partner in QuickMobile, Peterson Rosa, said the company is not working in the political arena this year and that the focus is only on corporate media. He denied having signed a contract with political content dispersal companies.

Richard Papadimitriou, of Yacows said he would make no comment. SMS Market did not respond to requests for an interview.

The accounts for the candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) show only that the company AM4 Brasil Inteligencia Digital as having received US$ 310,000  for digital media.

According to Marcos Aurelio Carvalho, one of the owners of the company, AM4 only has 20 people working on the campaign. “Those working on the campaign are the thousands of volunteer supporters throughout Brazil. The groups are set up and fed organically”, he said.

He said that AM4 only maintains groups on WhatsApp to denounce fake news, transmission lists and state groups called content committees.

However, the Folha newspaper found out from ex-members of staff and clients that the AM4 service is not restricted to that.

One of the tools used by the Bolsonaro campaign is the generation of overseas numbers automatically by sites such as TextNow.

Staff and volunteers have dozens of such numbers, which they use to administer groups or to take part in them. With area codes from other countries, these administrators escape the spam filters and the limitations imposed by WhatsApp — the maximum of 256 participants in each group and the automatic forwarding of a single message to up to 20 people or groups.

These administrators also use algorithms that segment the members of groups between supporters, detractors and neutral, and are thus able to customize the most efficient type of content sent.

Most of the content is not produced by the campaign but rather from supporters.

The administrators of Bolsonaro support groups also identify “influencers”: very active supporters who they contact to set up more groups and do other actions in favour of the candidate. This practice is not illegal.

There is no indication that AM4 signed contracts for mass dispersal; Carvalho denied that his company do user segmentation or manipulation of content.

Estimates of the number of people working in the sector on the number of WhatsApp anti-PT groups are very vague — between 20,000 and 300,000 — as it is impossible to calculate the closed groups.

Diogo Rais, Professor of electoral Law at the Mackenzie University, said the buying of WhatsApp dispersal services by companies to favour a candidate would be considered an undeclared campaign donation, which is forbidden.

He did not comment in specific cases, but reminds that this form could be qualified as a crime of abuse of economic power, and of judged to have influenced the election, lead to disqualification of the ticket.

IN MINAS GERAIS, ROMEU ZEMA HIRED A BOOSTER COMPANY

The candidate for governor of the Minas Gerais state of the Partido Novo, Romeu Zema, declared to the Superior Electoral  Court, payment of US$ 54,000 to Croc Services for diffusion of content. The state directorate of the party in Minas spent US$ 45,000 with the company.

The Folha newspaper had Access to the proposals and e-mail exchanges from the company with various campaigns offering mass dispersal using the database of third parties, which is illegal.

Questioned by Folha, Pedro Freitas, partner-director of Croc Services said: “The one who has to know the electoral legislation is the candidate, not me.”

Later, he back-pedalled and said he did not knowf his company provided services to Zema. Afterwards, he sent a message saying he had checked their records and that they had sold packages for mass dispersal over WhatsApp, but only to databases of the candidate himself, party members and Zema supporters —which is legal.

Asked for comment, the campaign said that they had “contracted the message service only for WhatsApp for the sending to party members, people registered to the web site and supporter mobilization events”.

The Folha newspaper found that voters in Minas received WhatsApp messages linking the vote for Zema to the vote for Jair Bolsonaro days before the first round. Zema, who was in third place in the polls, finished in first place.

Collaborators: Joana Cunha and Walter Nunes